with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Learning More About WordPress

I’ve been making a plan, and checking it twice, going to find out if I’m naughty or nice….you know the routine. The effort to convert my site from static HTML to interactive database, specifically into WordPress, has been extremely educational. In other words, I’m learning more than enough about things I wish I didn’t know. Ah, but that’s the way of the web.

Now that I have a fundamental (seriously fundamental) understanding of PHP and MySQL, I need to understand what WordPress can, and can’t, do for me.

The first place to start learning about how WordPress works is to read through the FAQs and the official documentation site, WordPress Codex. But that isn’t the only place for documentation and how-tos. Here are the sources I found to help me through this process:

When you are ready, the WordPress Support Forums will help answer questions. Trolling around the WordPress Forum, I quickly learned that a lot of people were having the same problems as I was, and if I asked the same question, I would be told that I should search the forums first for an answer. Valid suggestion, but the problem is I don’t know what I’m asking. Finding the words to ask the questions is one of the hardest parts of the asking. For instance, in printed media, the masthead is the top of the page with the title of the newspaper or magazine, with info about it. In HTML speak, it’s the header, not to be confused with the head, and here you start to see some of the problems that come with learning to speak the talk and talk the speak.

There is something very important that you need to know about the WordPress Forum, and I learned it really quick after a few spanks. It is totally run and supported by volunteers. The fact is that WordPress is free and the developers work overtime, for free, to add, upgrade, and improve the program. Support provided on the Forum is sometimes provided by the developers, but for the most part, it is by enthusiastic volunteers who love the program so much, and they, like me, feel a little guilty for getting this much power for nothing. They want to contribute and do so with their own experiences and learned expertise of the program. These are not professional customer service folks. They are not paid. A few might be behind some of the tweaks and magical programming efforts, but for the most part, they learned how to use WordPress the hard way and they want to help others not suffer as much as they did.

As non-professional support givers, they also have some expectations about visitors to the forum. After a few months hanging out there, I learned a little about those expectations.

First, they expect you to have done your homework before you post your question. Search the forums at the least, or use a search engine at the most. With so many people using WordPress now, a lot of people are posting their solutions to your same problem on their websites. The forum has been going for a couple of years, so you can search through the back archives and probably find a solution. And the WordPress Codex is still developing their table of contents, so a search there might turn up something helpful.

Second, they work really hard to understand your problem, no matter how you explain it, so give them as much information as you can. They know finding the words to describe your problem is difficult, especially for WordPress users with English as a second, third, or eighth language. Do your best to explain the problem or issue with as many of the “right” words as you can find, and they will try to figure out your problem. The article in the Codex First Steps With WordPress walks you through a basic first look at WordPress and helps you to name some of the areas. If your problem is on a live site, post a link to your site to help them help you. Also, before you post your question, realize that a lot of problems are solved by running a validation of your site. All it takes is one slip of the finger in the code and you have screwed up the look or results of your web page. Tell them you’ve validated your page, give them a link to the problem page, and describe the issue as best you can, and they will work overtime to help you out.

Third, not every expert is online on the forum all the time. The real experts come and go when they have time, since this is volunteer work. If your question is unusual, or too technical, or too specific to something few know about, then it may lie unanswered. If your question goes unanswered for a while, and you are in a hurry, then search the net or check in at the #Wordpress ICQ Channel (Direct Link) for a live chat with some WordPress experts – and yes, they are also volunteers. And you can always post another note or “bump” (type another note on the question) it up after a few days to see if anyone is now paying attention. Be patient. They are doing the best they can.

Now that I learned how to ask questions about WordPress and where to get help for WordPress, let’s get into some of the other lessons I learned along the way.

Things I Learned About WordPress

In preparation for installing and setting up WordPress for our website, I had to learn how different functions…well, function. The first part of learning about the functions were learning their names.

Templates/Template Files
To me, a web page is made up of html pages and style sheets. I was now entering a new world where something called PHP pages become HTML pages and they aren’t “web pages” but template files. In its most simplest form, a WordPress template file can generate every single web page on your site. The core template is called index.php and within it are the codes and tags that go into the database and collect information and then post it so you can see it on your site. The results are found within a generated HTML page. Different template files can be used to create different results, and WordPress uses modular template files to break up a single document into different parts, like the header, footer, sidebar, and main content page. For more info on templates, check out the WordPress Codex article on Templates.
Template Tags
Inside of WordPress template files are bits of PHP code that go into your database and collect the information to display on your generated HTML page. These are called template tags. One example is the template tag found in the title of your page’s header. Instead of looking like:

<h1><a href="http://example.com/index.php"My Website Name</a></h1>

It uses the bloginfo() template tag to generate the information as set up in your WordPress Administration Options:

<h1><a href="<?php bloginfo('url'); ?"><?php bloginfo('name'); ?></a></h1>

This is a very simple usage. The WordPress template tags are very powerful and some are flexible, allowing you to use different parameters to change the end result. I’m still learning about these, but you can find more information about them at Codex’s Template Tags.

The WordPress Loop
You will find a lot of references to the WordPress Loop in the documentation and on the forum. You can probably understand what this is better than I can, but basically it is a loop of PHP code that says, if this, go do that, and then if this, go do that, and go back and check again that all the conditions have been met and then spit out the web page so people can see the nice results. It uses conditional tags which set the conditions that are to be met to generate the information.
WordPress Pages
It took me a while to figure out the difference in WordPress between a page and a Page, but basically a page is a normal post created by running through the WordPress Loop. Okay, just another web page on your site. An individual Page is not so much static as it is outside of the Loop. It doesn’t grow old and stale and move from the front pages to the archives. A Page is used to create helpful web pages like “About”, “Contact”, “Site Policies”, “Site Map”, and other pages you need to flesh out your website.
WordPress Plugins
Plugins are bits of PHP code which do things for you within your WordPress setup. Some plugins help you fight spam, others add features, and others are just plain fun. There are even tutorials on how to write your own WordPress plugins, if you feel inclined. I’m still playing with these, but you can find WordPress plugins by searching the Internet or on the following sites:

For the most part, these plugins require you to do little but activate the plugin code and then sit back and watch it work. For others, you will have to venture into your index.php file or other template or configuration files to make a few changes. In general, the documentation that comes with most plugins is fairly specific and easy to help you make the adjustments. And who knows, you might have so much fun messing around under the hood, you might just create some fun plugins of your own.

WordPress Themes
A WordPress Theme is a collection of template files and a style sheet which create the “look” or presentation of your WordPress website. Last I heard, there were over 100 250 themes and a new contest underway, so soon there will be hundreds of themes to choose from. To use a WordPress Theme, download the Theme file and upload it to its own subfolder under wordpress/wp-content/themes/. Then go into the Administration pages and click on Presentation. Select and activate the Theme you want to use, and then look at your site. Bingo, instant makeover. Many people are starting to get into making their own WordPress Themes and I will be spending a lot of time reading about how they did it so I can customize mine to make it look like my old site, or something new.

Here are some sites that helped me learn more about WordPress Themes:

Now The Process Begins

With this information and resources by my side, it’s time to begin the process of restoring the look of my old website to the new WordPress site. I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’m going to need to know, but it’s a start. Stay tuned!

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